Understanding our two education reform movements

Two parallel and at times interdependent education reform movements are occurring in Florida. They differ in how they’re attempting to improve public education and in the political responses they’re generating.

The largest and most contentious effort is trying to improve public education by giving school districts more power over personnel decisions. Weakening tenure, tying teacher evaluations and pay to student achievement and eliminating the role of seniority in transfer decisions are core features of this district-centric reform.

Teachers strongly oppose these efforts to empower school district managers because they believe this power will be abused. Fifty-years ago teachers organized themselves into industrial unions and used their collective power to reduce the power of school district managers because too many managers were putting politics and patronage over student achievement. Today’s teachers have no intention of returning to those days without a fight.

The second reform attempts to improve public education by empowering teachers to create more diverse learning options and empowering parents to match their children with the learning options that best meet their needs. Whereas the first reform movement is focused exclusively on school districts, this second effort is advocating for greater teacher and parent empowerment in and out of school districts. School districts oppose this latter movement because they fear teachers will create — and parents will choose — learning options they don’t control, thereby causing districts to lose market share. And because the potential market share of a teacher union is tied to its school district’s market share, teacher unions also oppose this effort, even though teacher empowerment is one of its core components.

The political opposition to the within-district reforms has been more intense than to the teacher and parent empowerment movement because the empowerment reforms have focused primarily on low-income and exceptional education students and programs for these students are harder for school districts, teacher unions and Democrats to oppose. In addition, district employees are increasingly choosing non-district learning options such as charter and virtual schools for their own children. The within-district reforms, on the other hand, are universally opposed by teacher unions and elected Democrats since the impact of greater management power is more visible and threatening to teachers.

Understanding there are two distinct education reform movements occurring in Florida is a precursor to understanding the politics of improving public education in the Sunshine State. Eventually the teacher and parent empowerment movement will prevail because it is the best way to maximize public education’s greatest resource — its people. And when it does most of the contentious issues in the district-centric movement will become moot as key decision making moves from school districts to schools.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.